American presidents have received a diverse range of biographical attention that in both quality and quantity usually reflects the length of their term in office and the impact of their presidency. In this respect Allan Peskin's biography of James Abram Garfield stands out as virtually unique: a first-class biography of one of the briefest occupants of the presidency, which offers a thorough understanding of the man based on a comprehensive examination of his life and career.
Born in Ohio, Garfield attained success almost in spite of himself. Drawn to the sea, a period of illness cut short an early career as a canal driver, as he was drawn to more academic pursuits. A member of the Disciples of Christ, he made the most of the educational opportunities they provided, returning after college to teach at the school he attended as a youth. A gifted public speaker, Garfield began a career in politics that was cut short by his decision to serve in the Union Army, where he rose to the rank of major general. While still serving he won election to Congress, where he eventually emerged as the leader of the Republicans in the House of Representatives. Peskin sees Garfield as a capable figure, yet one whose ambition was tempered by a degree of fatalism about the outcome. Thus while serving as John Sherman's floor lieutenant at the 1880 Republican convention, he did nothing to discourage consideration of him as a "dark-horse" candidate. A narrow election won him the presidency, and he had only just resolved the party struggle over patronage when he was shot by a deranged assassin and suffered a slow descent towards death.
Peskin's book is easily the best biography of Garfield, thanks to its combination of judicious analysis and enjoyable writing. He is blunt in his assessment of Garfield, going past the superficial explanations to provide a convincing cataloging of his strengths and weaknesses. The result is an excellent biography, one of the best ever written about a president and one that likely will stand the test of time for decades to come.